Moving Tenure

Writing under the pseudonym “Aurora Dagny,” a Canadian activist offers four pieces of advice for those working for any sort of cause:

  1. “Embrace humility…. Question yourself as fiercely as you question society.”
  2. “Treat people as individuals. For instance, don’t treat every person who belongs to an oppressed group as an authoritative mouthpiece of that group as a whole…. Don’t be afraid to have original insights.”
  3. “Be diplomatic…. When it comes to moral disagreements, disbelief, anger, and a sense of urgency are to be expected. They are inherent parts of moral disagreement.”
  4. “Take a systems approach to the political spectrum…. Think about specific, concrete proposals. Would they actually work?”

As I read this, I thought about Michael Bérubé’s recent essay on InsideHigherEd, modestly titled “New Model of Tenure.”  He tries to address two questions, “What is to be done about the vast legions of faculty off the tenure track? What is to be done about the deprofessionalization of the profession?” These questions are critical to the future of American higher education—and they aren’t going to be answered by didactic responses, kneejerk reactions or entrenched positioning.

Bérubé tries very hard to follow Dagny’s advice. He knows that we involved with higher education are not in positions where posturing is going to do much good. Entrenched interests everywhere make it clear that no one is going to change his or her mind; people, when challenged, only dig in deeper.

How can progress be managed? How do we get beyond the impasse when any attempt to work with “the other side” will be seen as abandonment of the established orthodoxies of whatever side one happens to be on?

The only alternatives to compromise are revolution and inertia. Revolution isn’t going to happen, and inertia only leads to entropic decline. We need to find other ways of moving forward.

Bérubé writes (following Marc Bousquet) that the “deprofessionalization of the profession is underwritten by the undermining of the Ph.D.” That is, the assumption today is that a terminal degree (a doctorate or an MFA) is not needed for most college teaching, that an MA will do—something that has been the standard in community colleges (where research, the hallmark of the doctoral degree, has never been the focus) for decades and that is used for over-reliance on adjunct faculty at so many colleges today. He argues that we need to change this—department by department—but must do so by bringing those with terminal degrees (but working on contingent contracts) into the fold of those with the responsibilities that go with tenure.

My own campus, New York City College of Technology (CUNY), evolved out of a community college in the 1980s but still retains some of that culture. Only a decade ago did scholarship begin to be a real consideration within the tenure process, and it still doesn’t count as much, or is not evaluated as rigorously, as elsewhere (though our president is trying to change that). Many of the senior faculty who started here in the seventies and eighties began with no more than MA degrees, earning doctorates as the college changed so that they could advance within the new environment. Their interest was never really in research but in teaching.

Though I applaud the attempt to bring scholarship into the fold, as it were, I also worry that we are putting undue stress on those who have come here because it is primarily a teaching institution, people who, though they may have terminal degrees, are less interested in scholarship than they are in pedagogy and classroom activity. Since I arrived almost a decade ago, we’ve struggled with how to define “scholarship,” for many of us are only scholars by necessity and some of us try to make up for weaknesses in that area by dressing up work in ways that may not always be particularly appropriate. The result has been a split within my department (and in many of the others throughout the college), one not without rancor, between those developing real scholarly credentials and those using “scholarship” for advancement.

Add into that mix our adjuncts (more than twice the number of our tenured and tenure-track faculty), and we have a tripart faculty in our English department: scholars, teachers and adjuncts. Bérubé’s final words in the essay, then, struck a chord (though our three tiers are somewhat different than the ones he describes):

To critics who would claim that our plan creates a two-tiered system in academe, we can only say yes, yes, it does: there would be two tiers of tenured faculty. And it would be vastly superior to the unstable and vicious three-tiered system we have now, in which only one dwindling tier has any hope of tenure and academic freedom.

Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth’s plan is to create two tenure tracks, one with an emphasis on research and the other on teaching. Of course, at a school like mine (with no graduate or research division), the emphasis would always be on teaching, but there is no reason to hold everyone to a high research standard when a viable alternative could be created. At City Tech, we really do need both: The new emphasis on research is propelling us to a new position within the wider academic community, a new respect externally and a new enthusiasm within the faculty. However, we also need to maintain teaching excellence–something perhaps more critical at City Tech, where many of our students come to college with greater need for the attention of master teachers than might students at many other institutions.

Over the past few years the demands for tenure (and promotion) have increased. Though we recently did receive a course-load reduction, the college still expects a great deal more from its tenure-track faculty than it did in the past. The reduction in teaching doesn’t make up for the increased expectations for research (let alone the growing “service” demands created, in part, by increased reliance on adjuncts—whose only duties are in the classroom). Development of a clear two-track system here, then, might actually be a positive development for everyone.

As a department, we’ve begun to recognize that scholarship cannot be the gold standard for our hiring, at least. Over the past several years, three of our top adjuncts, all with MFAs, have been hired on tenure-track lines, all because of their teaching excellence. What expectations for them will be in terms of re-appointment, tenure and promotion has not been clearly determined (not surprisingly, since expectations for PhDs are not particularly clear, either). Development of a dual system would allow us to clarify expectations depending on what the faculty member’s focus might be.

Though I am not completely comfortable with the way Bérubé sees college teachers without terminal degrees, I look forward to reading his and Ruth’s forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, where, Bérubé says, they lay out the details of their proposal for a new tenure paradigm. Perhaps it can clarify our situation at City Tech and allow us to move toward development of a stronger department and college. I don’t know how much I will agree with, but I am certainly willing to be involved in the discussion that will, I hope, ensue. Bérubé and Ruth, after all, from the quick look on InsideHigherEd, seem to be moving to an emphasis on the practical, on compromise and the four points of “Dagny.”

We need that.

6 thoughts on “Moving Tenure

  1. Deprofessionalization is the watch word, indeed.

    In many institutions of so-called “higher education,” the PhD not required for adjunct positions in, for example, foreign languages where there is a mad, misguided presumption that all one need be is a native speaker to teach well. A native speaker, with or without a bachelor’s degree, will often trump a candidate with an MA or PhD for a position teaching the courses of the first two years of any foreign language major.

    The traditional faculty requirements of teaching, research and service were never meant to be separate components of the profession but rather integrated and inter-dependent components. To argue for a deprofessionalization of the faculty by accepting lower-level degrees — or no degrees at all — for admission to the faculty ranks, either as contingents or as “teaching tenured faculty,” is nothing short of highly ironic in this age of advanced knowledge advancing ever more rapidly, and therefore requiring continuing research just to keep up. University administrations risk — and indeed tolerate — teaching that is deficient in its content standards provided that the student “customer” has a pleasant experience and that positive grades move the student cohorts forward toward degree completion. Just keep those customers coming in the corporatized university.

    The unspoken reality is that the first two years of college — usually referred to as “general education” — have become repetitive of the senior year of high school, in no small part because the senior year for the college bound can be “written off” by the students, sloughed off due to the fact that college admission is determined long before the completion of the year and the candidate need only complete high school to begin college. In point of fact, major textbook publishers actually issue identical textbooks with different covers and titles for use in both high school and college courses in several disciplines — they know the truth of the situation.

    Rather than continue to deprofessionalize the university to ensure that “general education” is taught “on the cheap,” the United States would do better to create a 13th year of high school for this function, as several other Western countries do. There the lower-level credentials can match the function and the level more appropriately.

    Having research faculty with tenure is no innovation; Ivy League institutions have long had such separate tracks. What is needed is not a way to maintain the traditional PhD as a preparation for the research professioriate only but to restructure the articulation of high school and college and to evolve the PhD to ever more broadening and expansive content and applications so that the American university can return to its role as a true university and the PhD will at last be able to “professionalizes” more professions than just academia.

  2. While allowing for different emphases on the tenure track, there does not need to be a de-emphasis on scholarship. There are now a large number of journals that focus on pedagogical approaches, curriculum development, and classroom practices, not to mention all aspects of digitally delivered and enhanced education, as well as a growing number of journals focusing on the integration of teaching and community and professional service. In this digital age, the demand for such journals will grow to meet demand much more quickly and flexibly than was possible in even the relatively recent past.

    The modifications of the existing and still largely successful model do not need to be radical. Although it may seem rigid, it actually continues to accommodate change quite elastically.

    • A colleague and I were discussing just this point yesterday. To me, making the distinction provides a safety valve easing the pressure that some faculty members feel. However, you and he do have a point, and one that should be discussed thoroughly.

      Like you, I don’t see that massive change is needed. Modification, however, may prove useful.

    • No need to try to reinvent the wheel here, especially with a proposed overhaul that appears not well-rounded to stand the test of use and time quite as well as the “original” model has, that is, until contingency was expanded to confront the crisis in “general education” — and then contingency was exploited across the curriculum as a cost-saving measure in the corporatized university.

      Besides, scratch the members of the tenured professoriate and one discovers that rare is the one who actually prefers to teach these lower-level courses, for they are indeed for the most part constructed as advanced high school courses. Again, university counterparts in Europe and most of the world begin their work of teaching and scholarship/research at the level of the American “junior year” when “majors” truly begin to be defined.

      A famous book by Ernest L. Boyer, “Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate,” outlined the Scholarship of Discovery, the Scholarship of Integration, the Scholarship of Application and the Scholarship of Teaching as all constitutive of “research” — with no need to redefine tenure, etc. And the book was instrumental in advancing the acceptance and recognition of just such scholarship as is mentioned in the comment above.

      Indeed, the Carnegie Foundation touted Boyer’s book and its recommendations for years and helped to transform the definition of scholarship and research in the academy today. (for a scanned pdf of the 1990 version of the book, published by the Carnegie Foundation) (for the 1997 paper back edition)

  3. My ideal would be that there would be new tracks that, while teaching intensive, would still require terminal degrees and a research component. A combination of successful teaching, some reasonable research, and service would lead to a job where you had time to do decent work on all three, made a living, and had some security. My actual concern is with making that a *tenured* position. From some things I’ve observed over the years, tenure can be a brutal, soul crushing process. People get sent packing because their book covers are delayed at the press. Journals lose the article you so desperately need published. If I’d wanted that kind of stress in my life, I would have simply applied for tenure track jobs. But other things were more important to me — home, family, mental stability — and I now have a wonderful position in Michael’s department, actually, where I have so many opportunities to try new admin roles, create new classes, lead study abroads, etc. The only thing I miss is having time for more attentive engagement in writing and research (I’ve been trying to catch up a bit there, but it’s hard with five classes every semester and a zillion committees. So, I love new tiers…just not sure about introducing a tenure process. I’m grateful that there was a system in place that had a variety of options and wasn’t one size for all.

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